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How to Make Urban Highways Vanish

Thanks to this free open-source mapping tool, you can digitally demolish your city’s loathed urban expressways and reveal what lies beneath.

The beginning of the Cross Bronx Expressway, brought to you by Robert Moses. (Jason Paris/flickr)

Imagine there’s no highway, it’s easy if you try—even easier, since now there’s a map for that. With this latest cartographic venture, you can make the concrete superslabs and soul-sucking underpasses that are the scourge of urbanists everywhere disappear with a mere click.

This is the vision of Jeff Sisson, a developer at The New York Times who dabbles in the kinds of stuff we consider CityLab catnip. You might remember him from such projects as mapping New York’s bodegas. His latest effort is called “NYC (& The World) Without Highways.”

Highway removal in real life is expensive, time consuming, and politically challenging, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will inevitably discover as he plots a pricey demolition of the Bronx’s Sheridan Expressway. I bet he wishes it was as easy as this:

Now you see ‘em, now you don’t. (Jeff Sisson)

In true public-spirited manner, the map is built from an OpenStreetMap, with tags identifying highways, off-ramps, and exits to make the roads vanish or reappear. However, Sisson didn’t set out on a nihilistic quest to annihilate all highways—he just wanted to look underneath them.

“I live in Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is infamously cut off by highways.” Sisson says. “There’s only about three entrances or exits that you can go through as a pedestrian in the neighborhood. The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cuts us off on all sides and protrudes into the water.”

Under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where flat-maps can’t see. (Steven Pisano/flickr)

Sisson says this is especially difficult while riding a bike. Though online navigational maps provide cycling directions, there’s still only so much a top-down map can display on a flat-image; just like the built environment, highways are given primacy.

“That’s the reason it feels weird biking with those maps,” Sisson says. “Whenever a road goes under a highway, you literally don’t know where you’re going. On a satellite photo, you can only see whatever is highest. If you’re biking, you can’t actually see the top of the highway.”

Very few roads cross underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Freeway (Jeff Sisson)

Not so with Sisson’s map. His disappearing trick puts Mapzen’s Tangram vector tile layers to use in order to keep the urban features (identified by OSM tags) underneath the highways intact instead of flattening the images. The drawback to that complexity: The worldwide map takes a lot of time to load.

Sisson also does not have nearly the server capacity to build out every detail, so his map is simply a starting point for finding the scars left by the traffic planners and master builders of yore. By design, the maps and code are open-source, so other people can download their own maps and apply Sisson’s code, like someone just did for the city of Philadelphia. The URL mints a pretty catchy name for this magic highway erasure tool, given its New York City origins: Un-Moses.

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